Is Your Shuffle Procedure All Mixed Up? By Eliot Jacobson, Ph.D March 7, 2016 at 12:07 pm Things are really mixed up. At least, they should be. I’ve been thinking about commonalities between recent successes that some players have had against casinos. While the cultural and casino industry obsession with card counters is not fading, the powerful methods advantage players and cheaters use to beat the house continue on in relative obscurity. Many of these methods share one thing in common: they exploit some weakness in the shuffle procedure. The shuffle is at the core of table game protection. Every game played with cards requires that the deck or shoe be shuffled prior to the game being played. When the shuffle breaks down, bad things happen. The unshuffled card case that happened at the Golden Nugget in 2012 highlights how basic a shuffle is to a fair game. The Tran organization used false shuffles in baccarat to steal millions. Phil Ivey took advantage of the shuffle when he edge sorted against both the Borgata and Crockford’s. And there are dozens of other shuffle related cases that don’t make headlines each year. Here’s a puzzler. I was recently at a property that had a big problem. There were two players who would visit about once a month and camp out playing blackjack. They were known professional bridge players and their method of playing blackjack was very strange. One of the two played nearly perfect basic strategy, punctuated by a few bizarre strategy deviations. He varied his wagers from table minimum to table maximum. Once in a while he would spread to two or three spots at the table maximum. His friend would sit next to him and play with his chips at the table but would rarely make a wager. These “friends” rarely spoke to each other or anyone else in the casino and had an awkward demeanor. The big player was thoroughly checked for card counting, and his play was found to have absolutely no correlation with the count. The players didn’t care who the dealer was. Hole-carding and marked card play were also ruled out. Casino management couldn’t figure out what they were doing, or even if they were doing anything at all, as the players continued their winning ways. I asked management a single question and then told them what the players were probably doing. The question: does your shuffle procedure include a strip? The answer, “no.” The method: Ace sequencing. Ace sequencing is an advantage play method where players keep track of two or three cards on top of the Ace in the discard tray. After the shuffle, the players look for those key cards. After the key cards appear, they know the Ace is due to come out. Receiving an Ace as one of the player’s first two cards gives the player more than a 50% edge over the house. The non-playing friend seated at the table was using his chips to keep track of the key cards and to do the mental work to make the Ace prediction. When the Ace got close, he signaled his friend. The weird strategy plays brought the Ace into the most likely position to be dealt early the next round. The big player would then spread to multiple hands at table maximum to catch the Ace. There is an easy way to thwart Ace sequencing. A “strip” is an element of the shuffle procedure that has the effect of reversing the order of some of the cards. So, if the cards were in the order Queen, King, Ace, then after a strip they might end up in the order Ace, Queen, King. By reversing the order of the Ace with respect to its key cards, Ace sequencing is rendered ineffective. When a strip was put into this casino’s shuffle procedure, the bridge players suddenly decided that they no longer liked the casino. I later found out that this team had been identified playing the same way against casinos throughout the region. After the news got out, other casinos caught on and added a strip to their shuffle procedures as well. The casinos were no longer vulnerable — the bridge players had been trumped. Ace sequencing is not new. Over the years, the topic has appeared in numerous books, magazine articles and web postings. I first learned about it when I read the article “Fleecing Las Vegas”, by Michael Angeli, that appeared in the May, 1997 issue of Esquire magazine. A web search reveals information dating back to 1988 and before. However, its obscurity, like edge sorting, makes identification of players who are Ace sequencing problematic for many in casino management. Also, like edge sorting, the fix is trivial. Whereas adding a “turn” to the shuffle kills edge sorting, correctly adding a “strip” to the shuffle kills Ace sequencing. Every safe shuffle procedure must include the following five easy pieces: The “plug” is a method for inserting unused cards from behind the cut card into the cards in the discard tray. The plug can help deter shuffle tracking. This is usually the first step. The “riffle” is what most people think of as shuffling. The cards are divided into two piles and interlaced. A defective riffle (false shuffle) is what the Tran gang used in its criminal escapades. The “turn” was missing from the shuffles that Phil Ivey edge sorted. The turn involves dividing the shoe into two stacks and rotating one stack 180 degrees before riffling the stacks together. The “strip” allowed these bridge players to make a grand slam by Ace sequencing. The strip should not occur before at least two riffles have taken place. The “cut” is the final step before the cards are put back into the shoe. This insures that the top card cannot be identified if it was accidentally exposed during the other steps. Unless the “why” of a step in the shuffle procedure is understood, the end result of the shuffle may give big opportunities to the savvy player. Because time and motion costs favor shuffle simplicity, it’s easy to leave out critical parts of the process. However, if any piece of the shuffle puzzle is missing, or if the parts are in the wrong order, then things can get really mixed up, in a bad way.